Published: 11 April 2014
Written by: Eddie Allen
Upon the announcement that Sir Dave Brailsford has stepped down as British Cycling performance director, we look back at his career at British Cycling and the team’s remarkable achievements.
“If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by one percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together,” Sir Dave Brailsford explaining the marginal gains philosophy that is perhaps his greatest British Cycling legacy.
In the 11 years that Brailsford has headed-up the Great Britain Cycling Team, the squad has become the most successful British team in any sport at a world and Olympic level.
Brailsford was born in Derby on 29 February 1965 and grew up in the small North Wales village of Deiniolen. In his late teens and twenties, Brailsford raced on the road in France for four years before returning to the UK to study sports science, psychology and business; a combination that was to serve him well when he moved into the performance director role at British Cycling in 2003, succeeding Peter Keen.
Brailsford had worked on a consultancy basis for British Cycling from 1998 but the move to full-time performance director allowed him to build up the foundations that Keen had laid, with results coming quickly.
Prior to Athens 2004, British gold medals in cycling had been sporadic and thin on the ground, Chris Boardman’s in the pursuit in Barcelona in 1992 and Jason Queally’s kilo in Sydney 2000 the only golden oases in a barren period for British Olympic cycling success.
With Brailsford in post for around a year, Athens saw the first results of his rigorous marginal gains philosophy; examining every aspect of performance to extract small advantages, which collectively add up to a decisive winning margin.
Sir Chris Hoy’s gold in the kilometre time-trial and Sir Bradley Wiggins’ gold in the individual pursuit were the first signs of marginal gains bearing fruit, earning Brailsford an MBE in the 2005 Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Athens gold was just a taste of things to come, as Brailsford and his team began to build the strength in depth necessary for a full-scale assault on the Beijing 2008 medal table.
In 2007, as the Tour de France visited Britain for an historic Greenwich to Canterbury stage, the performance director began to voice his ambition to build a British pro road squad to rival the best in the world – the genesis of Team Sky, while at the same time pushing his Great Britain Cycling Team towards Beijing qualification.
Nicole Cooke’s epic win in the road race on the rain-drenched hills around Beijing began a medal landslide for Britain’s cyclists at the 2008 Games, winning a total of eight gold medals and positioning Brailsford’s squad as the most successful British sports team in Olympic history.
Once again, his efforts gained public recognition as well as sporting trophies; Brailsford became a Commander of the British Empire in the 2008 Queen’s New Year Honours and earned the title of sports coach of the year at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
With cycling rapidly breaking into the mainstream, and Brailsford’s athletes becoming household names, the performance director refused to rest on his laurels, and the planning for the glittering prize of London 2012 commenced.
The following year saw Brailsford’s pro road team vision become reality, when Team Sky was launched in 2009. In the same year, Bradley Wiggins achieved fourth place in the Tour de France, riding for Garmin and Brailsford began negotiations that eventually secured the talents of the British rider for Team Sky at the end of the season.
Over the next two seasons, Team Sky’s results begin to come as the team is strengthened around a British core of riders and staff. By 2011, Team Sky had Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins on the Vuelta a Espana podium – a British first.
Another first came on the road in quick succession – this time in Great Britain Cycling Team colours, as Mark Cavendish won the road world championships in Copenhagen – the first time a British man wore the rainbow bands on the road since Tom Simpson in 1965.
At a junior level, Lucy Garner won her second successive world road title, proving that the system that Brailsford had helped create was starting to deliver another generation of champions.
By then, the London Olympics were less than a year away and back on the track Brailsford’s team signalled its intent in Melbourne in early 2012, winning five world titles in Olympic disciplines – the start of what former British Cycling president Brian Cookson described as our ‘annus mirabilis’.
Upon formation of Team Sky in 2009, Brailsford signalled the aim of winning the Tour de France by 2014. Brailsford’s pledge came true in the summer of 2012 when Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the Tour de France, two years ahead of schedule.
Brailsford’s attention turned quickly from France to London, where Wiggins struck gold in the road time-trial, which along with seven golds on the track, equalled the team’s Beijing haul.
The gold rush continued into the Paralympic Games, where the team earned an astonishing 17 gold medals on road and track.
The end of London 2012 saw two of Brailsford’s talismanic athletes, Victoria Pendleton and Sir Chris Hoy, both retire from competitive cycling and herald a new chapter in Brailsford’s succession planning; what he termed ‘the changing of the guard.’
Brailsford’s new-look squad were immediately in their stride, with Becky James collecting two of the team’s five world titles at the track world championships in Minsk, an event which saw not only James and Simon Yates come of age on the world stage, but witnessed the continuing, spectacular rise of the women’s team pursuit squad; a product of both British Cycling’s systematic talent identification and marginal gains philosophies.
It was a similar story at junior level, with a burgeoning junior women’s team pursuit squad emulating their senior teammates, while Dannielle Khan’s double world titles mirrored those of James, once again showing that Brailsford’s road to Rio and beyond was firmly mapped out.
Into the summer and the scope of Brailsford’s work continued to widen; Team Sky scored their second successive Tour de France victory, this time with Chris Froome roaring to victory in Paris, while the team collected its first ever rainbow jersey in men’s BMX, when Liam Phillips took gold in New Zealand.
With a robust team based on robust planning, Brailsford has left British Cycling to focus fully on his role as Team Principal at Team Sky, in the full knowledge that the systems that he has put in place are a proven by over a decade of success on road, track and dirt.
On the announcement of his departure, Brailsford said, “Since London 2012, we have worked hard on succession planning and that has meant we’ve got to a point where I can move on, knowing the team will go from strength to strength.
“I'd like to thank all the great staff who I've worked with and of course the amazing athletes who ultimately deserve all the credit for their success.
“I have some extraordinary memories – not just from Olympic Games and World Championships but also just day to day seeing cycling go from a fringe activity to a mainstream sport.
“I’ve always said that, more than any of the medals, the transformation of cycling in Britain is the single thing I’m most proud of having helped achieve.”